In the discussion concerning the Boer Gravamen against the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the Canons, it has more than once been suggested that there is a kind of dichotomy in our creeds and that while the Canons teach the doctrine of reprobation, our Heidelberg Catechism avoids it. Opponents of the doctrine of reprobation suggest, therefore, that we ought to follow the example of the Heidelberg Catechism and teach a doctrine of election which is not weighted down by the nettlesome doctrine of reprobation. Dr. Boer followed this line of argumentation in his (recorded) debate with Dr. Lester De Koster in Kalamazoo on March 7, 1978. From a tape-recording of this debate I have transcribed the following excerpt from Dr. Boer’s address:
Permit me now in this very connection to call your attention to the Heidelberg Catechism. It is the only one of the three official creeds of the Christian Reformed Church that stands in close and intimate relation to the weekly, not to say daily, life of believers. The Heidelberg Catechism provides the weekly fare, weekly material, for the Christian Reformed pulpit. It is the basis of catechetical instruction. Its writers stood very close to the Reformation. Martin Luther was dead only sixteen years when the Catechism was published; and when it was published, John Calvin was still living. Ursinus and Olevianus were undoubtedly clearly and fully acquainted with the doctrine of reprobation as set forth both by Luther, and more fully by Calvin. Yet the Heidelberg Catechism makes no reference whatsoever to reprobation. It speaks plainly of redemption and of election, but not of reprobation. In Lord’s Day XII it presents the Lord Jesus Christ as “our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.” And in Lord’s Day XXI it teaches that “the Son of God out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, depends, and preserves for himself by his Word and Spirit, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen to everlasting life, and that I am and ever shall remain a living member thereof.” So here you have the secret counsel of God for our redemption made known, and a church chosen to everlasting life. That’s what the Catechism gives us, by which we weekly, daily, live, in terms of instruction, in terms of proclamation. It is this doctrine, unencumbered and uncompromised by the ever and inevitably discord-generating doctrine of reprobation that I ask the church to return to.
There can be no doubt about it, when you study the literature that the doctrine of reprobation has been brought into being and maintained in the Reformed tradition not by Scriptural teaching, but by logical deductions of the theological mind.
The question is: is it true that the Heidelberg Catechism deliberately teaches and intends to teach, as Boer suggests, a doctrine of election without reprobation? To use Dr. Boer’s own language, does the Catechism purpose to teach a doctrine of election “unencumbered and uncompromised by the ever and inevitably discord-generating doctrine of reprobation” — a doctrine to which Boer asks his church to return?
There are two tests which may be applied in seeking an answer to this question.
The first test is that of the confessions.
From the point of view of the harmony of the confessions, was it ever the intent of the Heidelberg Catechism to teach an election without reprobation, an election “unencumbered and uncompromised by the ever and inevitably discord-generating doctrine of reprobation”? From the same viewpoint; would it indeed be a return, or would it, on the contrary, be adeparture to do as Boer requests his church to do?
We must remember that our three confessions are not three individual and unrelated documents, but they are the Three Forms of Unity. This means that they are not to be understood in such a way that there is possibly a disjunction between them, so that, for example, the Catechism could teach one thing while the Belgic Confession would teach something diverse on the same subject. No, there is unity and harmony among the three.
Considering this from the point of view of the harmony of the Catechism and the Belgic Confession, first of all, it is clear that even though the Catechism does not literally mention reprobation, this by no means implies that the Catechism teaches or intends to teach a doctrine of election-without-reprobation. For the Belgic Confession in Article 16 does indeed teach, though in brief form, a doctrine, of election and reprobation.
But also from the point of view of the Canons of Dordrecht, against which Boer has registered his gravamen, this is true. It ought to be clearly understood that if Boer does not want the position of the Canons on reprobation, he is also in effect repudiating the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism; the former of which speaks briefly on reprobation and the latter of which is silent on the subject. Why is this true? It is true because the Canons occupy a peculiar position among our creeds. They do not stand on an equal footing with the Catechism and the Confession as far as content is concerned, but they occupy the status of a further explanation of certain points of doctrine already contained in the Catechism and the Confession. It is for this reason that the Formula of Subscription refers to the Canons in relation to the Catechism and the Confession by the expression, “together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19.” The Canons are only an explanation of some points of the doctrine already contained in the Catechism and the Confession, therefore. Furthermore, at the time of the Arminian controversy and the Synod of Dordrecht everyone recognized this. Not only the Counter-Remonstrant (the Reformed) recognized it. But the Armenians themselves recognized that the doctrine of reprobation was already the doctrine of the Reformed Churches even when the latter did not yet have the Canons, but only the Catechism and the Confession. This accounts for the fact that the Armenians wanted a national synod at which they would not be defendants but would be on an equal footing at the synod, a synod which would review and revise the existing creeds. This also accounts for the fact that when the Synod of Dordrecht called upon the Arminians to state in writing their position concerning the first point of doctrine in dispute, the Arminians promptly launched a sharp attack against the Reformed doctrine of reprobation. Dr. Boer could at least be forthright enough to recognize this and not to act as though he has the beloved Heidelberg Catechism on his side.
But there is another test — call it the historical test, if you will. From the historical point of view, was it ever the intent of the Heidelberg Catechism, by its omission of the mention of reprobation, to teach what Harry Boer calls a doctrine of election “unencumbered and uncompromised by the ever and inevitably discord-generating doctrine of reprobation”?
Dr. Boer makes a big point of this matter, you know. He takes pains to point out that the Catechism was published during Calvin’s lifetime and only sixteen years after Luther’s death. He points out that the authors of the Catechism, Ursinus and Olevianus, were “undoubtedly clearly and fully acquainted with the doctrine of reprobation as set forth both by Luther, and more fully by Calvin. And “Yet,” according to Boer, “the Heidelberg Catechism makes no reference whatsoever to reprobation.”
Now is this true? Is this a correct presentation historically? Is it true that Ursinus and Olevianus, though they lived so close to the Reformation and were acquainted with its doctrines, deliberately and intentionally omitted the mention of the doctrine of reprobation, lest it should encumber and compromise the doctrine of election and lest it should generate discord? This is plainly what Dr. Boer attempts to suggest in the paragraph quoted.
There is, of course, another possible explanation. That explanation is anathema to the likes of Boer and Daane. That explanation is that in the mind of all Reformed men, Luther and Calvin and Ursinus and Olevianus and all the fathers of Dordrecht included, it is absolutely impossible to breathe the word “election” without saying by implication “reprobation.” Daane scoffs at this as the logic of numbers. Boer repudiates it as being mere logic rather than Scripture, and makes especially Louis Berkhof the victim of his attack. The simple fact is that you can find this kind of logic in almost every Reformed theologian of note — not apart from, but in connection with the Scriptures. And the simple fact is, too, that none of the critics of this logic has yet succeeded in making plain to anyone how there can be an election (I am speaking of election in the Reformed sense!) without a concomitant reprobation. Take reprobation in the mildest infralapsarian sense of a passing by or a non-election. How can there be an election of a certain definite number of persons out of the whole human race without the passing by or non-election of those who are not chosen? The men who hold this position, if they want to be recognized as at all credible, owe it to the Reformed community to clear up this matter.
But to return to the issue, which of these two possible explanations is correct? Which represents the true position of the Heidelberg Catechism? Dr. Boer’s explanation or mine?
We have an excellent court of appeal for this test — none other than Ursinus himself. As possibly most of you know, Ursinus is the author of a lengthy commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, a commentary which was produced from his lectures by Dr. David Pareus, the intimate friend and disciple of Ursinus. Turning to Lord’s Day XXI, the beautiful chapter on the holy, catholic church mentioned by Dr. Boer, what do we find by way of commentary? Do we find so much as a hint that the Catechism (Ursinus) intended to teach an election without reprobation?
On the contrary!
Ursinus devotes some ten long pages to a treatment of the doctrine of predestination, including both election and reprobation.
He introduces this section as follows:
The Common Place of the eternal predestination of God, or of election and reprobation naturally grows out of the doctrine of the church: and is for this reason correctly connected with it; In the discussion of this subject we must enquire principally,
I. Is there any predestination?
II. What is it?
III. What is the cause of it?
IV. What are the effects of it?
V. Is it unchangeable?
VI. To what extent may it be known by us?
VII. Arc the elect always members of the church, and the reprobate never?
VIII. Can the elect fall from the church, and may the reprobate always remain in it?
IX. What is the use of this doctrine?
When he enters upon his treatment of the above questions, it is interesting to note, Ursinus cites some of the very same passages of Scripture as those which the Canons quote and to which Dr. Boer objects in his gravamen. What Ursinus has to say on the subject is worthwhile, and so I will reproduce some of it. The following is from his answer to the first question:
When the question is asked, Is there any such thing as predestination? it is the same thing as to enquire, if God has any counsel or decree, according to which he has determined that some should be saved, and others condemned. There are some who affirm that election, when used in the Scriptures, means excellence, on account of which some are regarded worthy to be chosen unto everlasting life, just as a man may make choice of a noble horse, or of pure gold. It is in the same way that they explain the idea of reprobation.
This view, however, is false, in as much as election is the eternal counsel of God. That there is such a thing as predestination, or election and reprobation in God, is proven by these declarations of Scripture: “Many are called but few are, chosen.” “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold.” “He hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world; having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” “I have much people in this city.” “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” “Whom he did predestinate, them he also called.”
The following passages of the word of God may be regarded as having a special reference to reprobation. “God willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction.” “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” “It is given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” “Who were before of old ordained to this condemnation.” “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise, and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes, even so Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.” “Ye have not the words of God, because ye are not of God.” “Ye believe not; because ye are not of my sheep.” “The Lord hath made all things for himself, yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.”
The entire treatment of this subject by Ursinus is instructive. But let me limit my quotations to one more. For in it you find, in the last sentence, the very same logic on the part of Ursinus which Dr. Boer repudiates, namely, that reprobation is implied in election. Take note of that sentence. In these paragraphs Ursinus is answering the question, “What is predestination?”
Predestination- differs from providence, as species from genus. Providence is the counsel of God concerning all his creatures; but predestination is the counsel of God, with reference to the salvation of angels, and men. Predestination is, therefore, the eternal, most righteous and unchangeable counsel of God concerning the creation of man, the permission of man to fall into sin and eternal death, the sending of his Son in the flesh that he might be a sacrifice, and the salvation of some by true faith and conversion through the Holy Spirit and the word for the sake of the mediator, by, and on account of whom they are justified, raised to glory, and rewarded with eternal life; whilst the rest are left in sin and death, raised to judgment, and cast into everlasting punishment. This definition of predestination is given with reference to men, and not to angels, because it is of the salvation of men that we shall here speak.
The two parts of predestination are embraced in election and reprobation. Election is the eternal and unchangeable decree of God, by which he has graciously decreed to convert some to Christ, to preserve them in faith, and repentance, and through him to bestow upon them eternal life. Reprobation is the eternal, and unchangeable purpose of God, whereby he has decreed in his most just judgment to leave some in their sins, to punish them with blindness, and td condemn them eternally, not being made partakers of Christ, and his benefits. That both election and reprobation are the decree of God, these and similar declarations of Scripture prove: “I know whom I have chosen.” “According to his grace which was given us in Christ Jesus, before the world began.” “He hath mercy on whom he will”
Election and reprobation were, therefore, made with counsel; and hence each is the decree of God, and for this reason eternal: because there is nothing new in God, but all things are from everlasting, or before the foundation of the world. In as much now as he has chosen us, he must have rejected the rest, which is still further proven by the import of the word election, or choice; for that which is chosen, is selected, whilst other things are rejected.
It is abundantly plain, therefore, that the Heidelberg Catechism — according to the testimony of its author himself — does not purpose to teach a doctrine of election-without-reprobation. The contrary is true. And he who would keep silent about reprobation in connection with the mention of election by the Catechism in Question and Answer 54 would be unfaithful to the doctrine contained in the Catechism — again, according to the testimony of its author.